Book Review

Book Review: Graceling

Synopsis (From Amazon)

Graceling [by Kristin Cashhore] tells the story of the vulnerable-yet-strong Katsa, who is smart and beautiful and lives in the Seven Kingdoms where selected people are born with a Grace, a special talent that can be anything at all. Katsa’s Grace is killing. As the king’s niece, she is forced to use her extreme skills as his brutal enforcer. Until the day she meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, and Katsa’s life begins to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

My Thoughts

A female assassin in a fantasy setting? Sign me up! I was so excited to read this book but unfortunately it did not meet my expectation. The premise is incredible: some people are born with eyes of different color which indicate they are graced with an unnatural ability. The main character, Katsa, is graced with the skill to kill. Her uncle, the King, uses her to enforce his will in vicious ways but to make amends, Katsa runs a secret “Council” that fights the evil rule prevalent throughout the seven kingdoms.

For such a fantastic concept, the book has no plot to support it. The Council never really plays a part; there is not a significant challenge or puzzle Katsa must overcome. She meets a prince who obviously is more than he seems, falls for him, predictably eventually stands up to her Uncle, and then rescues a young princess. That’s about it. None of the major plot points really thread together well and I predicted all of the “twists” except for the last one.

Along with premise, I do give the author credit for staying true to her characters. It would have been so easy and perhaps expected to have the characters end in a different way. Instead, Kristin Cashore stays true to Katsa’s character and gives her the nontraditional, though fitting conclusion. Brava to Kristin for taking the brave path.

Graceling was a fine read but it’s not one I see myself ever going back to again.

Book Review

Book Review: The Serpent and the Eagle

This multiple POV journey allows Rickford to depict each scene from the view point with the most on the line, heightening tension. But by switching from the heads of Cortez’s crew to that of the native Mexica, I found myself rooting for both sides and falling ambivalent to who would claim victory.

The Serpent and the Eagle is an emotional journey through the eyes of a Mexica King, conquistadors, a slave girl, and so many more caught in the Spanish hunger for gold. Dramatizing the landing of Cortez in the New World, the novel follows his social maneuvering with natives to obtain riches. Each chapter changes the narrator’s POV allowing the reader to also experience the anxiety the “pale ones” bring to native Mexica. As a result, the tension in this book is created from mental turmoil rather than militaristic campaigns, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

There are also so many characters in this novel it can be hard to keep them straight and none are really fully developed. The closest developmental arc follows the power struggle between Cortez’s translator, Aguilar, and the native slave, Malinche. As the only one who speaks Nahuatl, Malinche quickly realizes she can exploit her skill to raise her station and later how she can twist Cortez’s words to influence perception. I enjoyed watching her subtle, clandestine grasp for power and hope to see her manipulative side further developed in Book 2.

However Rickford’s engrossing story telling makes up for any shortcomings associated with the large ensemble of characters. His words flow from the page like silk, pulling the reader into period not commonly seen in historical fiction. Each character’s voice is masterfully crafted and distinct. I never would have picked up this book without prompting, but I would have missed out. This is a perfect read to branch out from a reading rut, learn about a different era in history, and try something a little off from mainstream.

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About the Author, Edward Rickford

Ever since Edward was young, he has enjoyed writing. College gave him the chance to combine his interest in history with his passion for storytelling and he mainly writes historical fiction now. To research The Serpent and the Eagle, Edward read centuries-old texts and traveled to Mexico repeatedly, even retracing Cortés’ route through central Mexico. For his writing, he has won the Best in Category prize in the 2017 Chaucer Book Awards and the Deixler-Swain prize for his undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war.  

Book Review

Book Review: Three Dark Crowns


(Amazon Description)

In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born—three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.

But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins.

The last queen standing gets the crown. 

My Thoughts

Three Queens fighting for a crown? Sign me up!

But unfortunately this book is a broken promise.

The first scene is riveting, following the poison queen prepare for her 16th birthday celebration. The book then introduces the other queens, her sisters, as they come upon their “ascension year” where they must hunt each other until one survivor claims the crown.

However that battle never comes. Instead this is 398 pages of mundane social relationships, queens admitting they have no special magical gifts, and constantly changing points of view which I found made it hard to get engrossed in the story.

The premise of this book and the word Kendare Blake has imagined is amazing, but the story does not live up to that potential.

I strongly believe a book should have its own story arc, even if a sequel is inevitable. Three Dark Crowns has no satisfying conclusion and instead just ends in the middle of a slow story hoping you’ll buy the sequel.

I will be passing.

Book Review

Book Review: The Greenest Branch

I wish I had written this book and I can think of no higher praise.

The Greenest Branch as a fictional account of Hildegard of Bingen, a young, spirited oblate who overcomes more than just her gender to become Germany’s first female physician. Written in two parts, The Greenest Branch covers how Hildegard earned the title of “physician” and the early parts of her career.

Synopsis of The Greenest Branch

Greenest Branch eBook Cover Large

(From the Amazon description)

The year is 1115, and Germany is torn apart by a conflict between the Emperor and the Pope over who should have the right to appoint bishops and control the empire’s vast estates. In that atmosphere, young Hildegard is sent to the Abbey of St. Disibod in the Rhineland as her parents’ gift to the Church in accordance with a custom known as the tithe.

Hildegard has a deep love of nature and a knowledge of herbal healing that might make more than one Church official suspicious of witchery, and she hopes to purse medical studies at St. Disibod. But no sooner does she settle into her new life than she finds out that as a girl she will not be allowed to attend the monastic school or use the abbey’s library; instead, she must stay at the women’s convent, isolated from the rest of the community and from the town. It might seem that Hildegard’s dreams have quickly come to an end. Yet she refuses to be sidelined.

Against fierce opposition from Prior Helenger, the hostile head of the monks’ cloister, she finds another way to learn – by securing an apprenticeship with Brother Wigbert who runs the infirmary and is in dire need of a capable assistant. Under his supervision, she begins to train as the abbey’s first female physician and makes rapid progress. When Hildegard’s reputation starts to spread throughout the Rhineland, Helenger’s persecution escalates as he fears losing control over the women’s community. But that is not the only challenge she must grapple with. She has also developed feelings for Volmar, a fellow Benedictine novice, that force Hildegard to re-examine the fundamental assumptions she has made about her life. Is the practice of medicine within the monastic confines her true calling, or is a quiet existence of domestic contentment more desirable?

With the pressures mounting and threatening to derail her carefully-laid plans, Hildegard becomes locked in a struggle that will either earn her an unprecedented freedom or relegate her to irrevocable oblivion.

The Greenest Branch is the first in a two-book series based on the true story of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician and one of the few women to attain that position in medieval Europe. Set against the backdrop of the lush oak forests and sparkling rivers of the Rhineland, it is a tale of courage, strength, sacrifice, and love that will appeal to fans of Ken Follett, Umberto Eco, Elizabeth Chadwick, Margaret Frazer, Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, and to anyone who enjoys strong female protagonists in historical fiction.


My Thoughts

Every word of this book is beautiful. The phrasing, the description. P.K. Adams’ talent for writing is evident upon each page of this notable tale.

True to Hildegard’s life, this book has a slow and perhaps flat plot, but I appreciate the author’s honest recount of the physician’s life. At several points I wished Adams had turned up the tension just a bit more, especially with Hildegard’s potential love interest, but in the Author’s Note in the back, Adams admits such events were already heightened for the sake of the book. Life is often not a perfect story arc or action-packed and I respect the author’s choice to stay true to history. Most historical fiction fans will feel the same.

That being said, the antagonist in this book is Medieval German society and the prejudice Hildegard has to overcome to foster her gift. Adams strikes a fantastic balance in the voice of this novel. Hildegard’s frustration comes across but in balance with how a Sister would have honored the Church, its customs, and her superiors even if they often stand in her way. This is a story I easily related to as a female engineer: how sometimes you just want to scream, but swallow battle losses for the sake of the larger war.

I also loved how historical detail was woven perfectly into the plot. P.K. Adams subtly weaves in the details of how a medieval abbey functioned without a single line of “information dump.” Every detail from religious tradition to the medicinal use of herbs flows naturally from the narrator.

Hildegard would be honored to have her tale captured in such beautiful words and by a female author nonetheless. P.K. Adams has honored Hildegard’s memory and story in a exquisite novel I highly recommend. I can’t wait for part 2.

Order the The Greenest Branch on Amazon US and Amazon UK

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About The Author
P.K. Adams is a Boston-based historical fiction author, whose debut novel The Greenest Branch is the first in a two-book series based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. She has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia and a master’s degree in European Studies from Yale. When not reading or writing, she can be found hiking, doing yoga, and drinking tea (though usually not at the same time).

Learn more about P.K. Adams at her website and @pk_adams.



Book Review

Book Review: War of the Roses: Stormbird

(Adapted from the back cover)

This is the first book in #1 New York Times bestselling author Conn Iggulden’s historical series about two families that plunged England into a devastating, decades-long civil war.

In 1437, the Lancaster king Henry VI ascends the throne of England after years of semi-peaceful regency. Named “The Lamb,” Henry is famed more for his gentle and pious nature than his father’s famous battlefield exploits; already, his dependence on his closest men has stirred whispers of weakness at court.

A secret truce negotiated with France to trade British territories for a royal bride—Margaret of Anjou—sparks revolts across English territory. The rival royal line, the House of York, sees the chaos brought on by Henry’s weakness and with it the opportunity to oust an ineffectual king.

As storm clouds gather over England, King Henry and his supporters find themselves besieged abroad and at home. Who or what can save the kingdom before it is too late?

My Thoughts

I wanted to love this book which came highly recommended to me by several fans of Tudor historical fiction and perhaps my expectations were too high.

Compared to a history text, this is a vivid recount of the prelude for my favorite period in history. Compared to a fiction novel, the the lack of character development and story line struggled to hold my attention. There is no twist, no foreshadowing, no surprise or tension. I predict a reader’s reaction to this Stormbird is probably dependent upon their expectation at page one.

There are a lot of characters in Stormbird – so many that I’m not sure “character” is the correct description, more name dropping at times. I get it, it’s a complicated historical story, but I still want to be entertained. Because there are so many characters I felt none of them are truly developed. Margaret of Anjou is the closest but she follows a predicable, dull path from naive child to protective queen without significant challenge or conflict. Even though this is a fictional recount of a true story and I knew the ending, I still longed for a character to cheer for or to sneer at. I felt disconnected from everyone which left me unconnected to every event.

That being said, I still finished the book, though I expect that is more due to my love for Tudor history than the writing. Despite being 460 pages (and ~100 pages too long), Stormbird is a fast read. The voice is simple which aids skimming  (which I found myself doing fairly often.)

The Historical Notes at the end were my favorite part. As a historical fiction author I appreciate how Iggulden manipulated history to weave his book and how he reveals what was his imagination and which parts are rooted in historical evidence. The historical notes heightened my appreciate for the piece and left me feeling more satisfied than I expected. It will be a while before I would consider tackling book #2, but I just might…